Hugo reading 2017: Death’s End, by Cixin Liu

Death’s End, by Cixin Liu, is, I think, very good, but not for me.

I should start by mentioning that it is a very long novel, and I did not manage to finish it.  It didn’t enrage me or anything, it just was not my thing.  It’s very dense, hard SF on an epic scale, and I was finding that the only characters I really cared about or identified with were the ones who were in the wrong, at least as far as the philosophy of the book goes in the first half.  I think I gave it a pretty fair chance – I read Parts 1 and 2, and part of Part 3, which amounted to just under 300 pages all up and took me nearly to the halfway point.  I couldn’t face another 300+ pages.  Sorry.

Death’s End is book three of the trilogy that started with The Three Body Problem.  It stands alone quite well, which is to say, I had no idea that it was the third book in a trilogy, and certainly had no sense that it wasn’t a perfectly self-contained story, at least in the half I read.

There is a LOT of plot, and I don’t quite know how to summarise it.  There is a lengthy synopsis here.  Essentially, Earth has been under attack by the Trisolarans, but eventually the two sides settle into a sort of Cold War / mutually-assured-destruction scenario which allows both sides to prosper peacefully.  This goes on until Cheng Xin, an aerospace engineer who originally worked on a problem at the start of the Trisolar Crisis and was in hibernation for two hundred years before being woken up to address a completely different problem, is elected the new Swordholder.  During the time Cheng Xin has been asleep, the world has become very feminised (initially she can’t tell men from women), and Cheng Xin, is viewed as a reassuring, Madonna-like figure, who will keep the world safe.  Alas, when the Trisolarians attack, she is unable to press the button that would lead to the destruction of both worlds, and Earth is invaded.

And that’s really just the first quarter or so of the book.

There are some fun things in here.  As an Australian, I got a certain kick out of the fact that when humans are restricted to reservations, the reservation is Australia.  And it was amusing having the Australian government being in charge of the human portion of the world, at least for a while.  Even if they did give Melbourne away.  I was also amused that AA, Cheng Xin’s assistant is excited to meet an Aboriginal Australian man, Fraisse, and enthusiastically performs a Haka, and Fraisse just smiles and gently points out that no, Hakas are a Maori dance, before performing an absolutely terrifying one to demonstrate.

There’s also some fairly cool fourth-dimension stuff, which I don’t understand very well, but which I enjoyed nonetheless.  The descriptions are fantastic, and the translator, Ken Liu is clearly a very gifted writer in his own right.

There are also things that annoy me.  There seemed to be a pervasive sort of theme that women are nurturing and peaceful and that if men become nurturing and peaceful and too feminised, then this will inevitably result in destruction.  Everyone forgives Cheng Xin in a rather patronising way, because she couldn’t help being sweet and gentle, and it’s the fault of others for electing her.  It’s the Manly Men of the 21st century, the ones who came out of hibernation into this feminine world and didn’t fit in, who tell Cheng Xin not to run for election as the sword holder, and it’s the Manly Men who turn out to be right, and who are able to run the resistance.  More Manly Men on spaceships are the ones who save the world (and even make a passing comment about how there really aren’t any Real Men on Earth any more).  Even the gentle Fraisse takes the opportunity to point out to Cheng how it was that she could not intimidate the Trisolarians, because he might be gentle, but he is still a Man and therefore capable of expressing aggression in a way that Cheng Xin can’t.

Now, it’s possible that this gets turned around by the end of the book, but honestly, I found this quite frustrating to read.  There really aren’t any other female protagonists, and it frustrates me that Cheng Xin is so consistently portrayed as being so emotional and soft compared to everyone else – at one point the Trisolarian calls her the only true innocent when it comes to their invasion, because Cheng Xin only did what she had to do.  It’s the fault of the rest of the world for putting her there to fail.  Which is only true if one assumes that Cheng Xin had no ability to say no to taking up the role of Swordholder or insufficient self-awareness to realise that she would be unable to do the job.  Again, it’s a really patronising attitude, and it annoyed me a fair bit.  And it smells a little bit like ‘women can’t be leaders because they aren’t tough enough to go to war’.

Aside from the sexism, I was uncomfortable with the the way the book seemed to be glorifying the sort of military hard choices that destroy worlds, and suggesting that without such choices, if people try to live peacefully, they are doomed.  This is not a worldview I am comfortable with.

In conclusion, it’s a clever book, and it’s well written.  I suspect that if you are a hard science fiction person, you will really enjoy the world building and the technology.  But I don’t like it’s philosophy, and I don’t like it’s gender essentialism and underlying sexism.

Currently, it’s coming in ahead of Too Like The Lightning because my primary complaint was boredom rather than rage, and because it does, at least, have the virtue of being a self-contained story.  But All The Birds In The Sky is still winning, because it managed neither to bore nor infuriate me.

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